Seeking a more mystical way

September 25th, 2017

Nearly every time a moderating position comes forward trying to help navigate a way forward for The United Methodist Church, it involves some version of the “local option” that cedes control over numerous authorities to annual conferences and local churches to various degrees. The Uniting Methodists movement recently joined the ongoing search for ways to move forward as a church body, and part of the published claims includes such a “local option.”

Let me be quite clear, because otherwise everything else will be pointless: I participated in the Uniting Methodist conversation since it began in Nashville, and am a part of the team that helped to craft the theological vision. I do not in any way speak on behalf of that body, but I do speak as a participant. I am grateful to have been a part of that conversation thus far, and remain committed for now in continuing that conversation because I believe that its possibilities are far from exhausted. 

I am also a cisgender heterosexual committed to full inclusion for our LGBTQ siblings. I am too deeply theologically haunted by Eugene Rogers, Jr and many others to be anything other.

Along with that conviction, and for reasons that I believe would be shared by some who participate in the Uniting Methodist conversations, I am concerned that while full inclusion should be our goal, commitment and desire, our imagination for processes and practices to move us there are pitifully thin.

It often seems that, for those who argue strongly for a fully inclusive church, others who cannot yet see why that should be so will just have to accept it and move on. In effect, it would be to resign such persons to suffering without end or purpose—and I am at least concerned about the pastoral realities of indefinite suffering.

I also recognize, as best I can given my earlier self-identification, that the current state of the church and more importantly, the “local options” are an equally unyielding and indefinite suffering, most especially for LGBTQ disciples. As one colleague recently challenged me, how can the “local option,” especially given its finality moving forward, not simply be the sexualized Southern Strategy—giving “rights” back over to local leadership whereby discrimination may continue in a nearly reorganized re-institutionalization?

So, as I wonder about the possibilities and consider the systems or modes that might recognize the deep pain that has been felt and will likely need to be experienced in order for growth to be possible, I ask: what are the ascetical tools in our tradition that can help us re-unite and move forward as one body knit together and fully inclusive in a new way?

What might we gain as a church if we were to bind ourselves to a richer asceticism?

And what would it look like to practice that ascetical mode for a given time, so that we could give one another the space to possibly turn and change and grow together, while not consigning one another to a continued greater and indefinite suffering?

I would offer as a possible answer that if we could have the time, collectively as a church, to practice an ascetical movement we might be surprised at what happens next.

I also recognize that any call for more time immediately leaves me—a heterosexual white male—open to critiques about yet another powerful voice calling for those experiencing oppression to just be patient. I recognize that calling for any process that might be measured by Annual Conferences and General Conference cycles will seem more of the same. And it might be; I cannot fully escape those realities. And yet, I hope that I can qualify what I mean by "time" enough to preempt some of the critique.

Perhaps the mystics can guide us, those who went into more constrained community for the sake of witnessing to the church the depth and breadth of the gospel in new ways. And if they can guide us, they would first teach us to practice purgation.

Purgation is that unfurling of grace that takes us sharply away from the practices of the world, with the sort of new life outlined by mystics such as Clement of Alexandria. This mode contains a whole host of practices centered on fasting and confession and truth-telling and humility; we might wonder what these practices could look like on the larger scales of local churches and conferences. 

Taking on this process would mean we engage in confessional practices across the orders of elders and deacons over the span of months and years. 

We might have to take seriously liturgical resources for communal confession in our churches and in our orders, sitting together and naming the ways we have hurt one another across our connections and our covenant. 

We might have to fast together more, sit together in prayer more, put ourselves in places where we commit to listening to our pain and harm we each have done the ties that bind us.

If purgation is going to be possible, however, our commitment to the process must be totalizing. I am quite aware that when most voices call for reconciliation and forgiveness, they are often voices of power who give up little for that process to happen. 

If being purged is going to hurt, it must hurt us all, and not necessarily equally. If there is going to be an interim phase whereby we are able to pause, to hold, to fast enough to speak the truth to one another, everyone will have to give up something—including and especially those in the positions of power. 

For instance, instead of the “local option,” purgation might look more like the entire church putting a hold on ordinations completely, for the duration of that time. Then we might have the time to practice confession together, stripped down, pausing long enough to wonder and explore and discover the richness of Spirit’s gifts for all those who are called to ordained ministry. 

We cannot expect movement—the shifting of long-held beliefs, the understanding that comes from hearing—without fasting together long enough to unstop our ears and our hearts. How can the Spirit speak, pick us up and move us to where we should all be, if we insist on maintaining weighty hearts of stone?

The second and third movements—illumination and union—are harder to imagine, at least concretely at this point, because they depend so critically on what comes through purgation. Illumination would lead us at all levels of connection to adopt new practices that could remodulate our beliefs, and it is almost impossible to imagine at this point what such practices might be. 

Illumination might at least lead to a renewed covenantal vision for our ordained orders, a new ‘binding’ that has us meeting and following Christ together in ways that would surprise us all. Perhaps those with greater engagement in monasticism could offer more direction than I.

The unitive phase, seen through mystics like Evagrius of Pontus and St Teresa of Avila, is where sustained prayer practices are the prerequisite for certain theological understandings and thus new and deeper levels of connection than previously known. Only then might we experience a greater and truer unity, first with Trinity and secondly with one another.

The point of all this, however, is that if we are in fact going to possibly experience newer unitive states in the life of the church, they cannot rely on us sitting around to discuss what those might be. I don’t believe that any unitive state can exist without resulting in full inclusion, but I am also unwilling to categorically cast aside those of my brothers and sisters in Christ who cannot agree with me yet. Unitive states are unlikely to come through more effective legislative processes, and the current slew of proposals will likely only lead to greater loss and suffering on one or all sides.

This mode may not resolve everything, either. It does, however, at least recognize that if we are going to stand any chance at healing we must subject ourselves to Spirit’s purging fire. Such a process does recognize, much like every truth and reconciliation process we know of, that true healing and unity can only come through actual confession and truth-telling, even if we are not always sure what the outcomes will be.

If nothing else, perhaps we might continue looking more widely into the richer places in our tradition for a journey, a pilgrimage that can take us all through our pain and suffering to a greater unity than we could have imagined on our own.

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